A couple of months ago, after my “Year of the Conversation” post, I was chatting with a friend about what I thought “conversations” meant for public relations. It was simple, I told her. We needed to get out of the pitch-‘em-all, pitch-‘em-often mindset and really focus in on the hard work of understanding what the press needs. We needed to be engaged readers, a source of constructive criticism and dialogue, and a ready resource (regardless of whether we had any professional skin the game).
“Hmmmm,” my friend said, agreeing with the general idea. “But I’m not sure that scales.”
This was intended as a rhetorical kill shot, an argument that the idea of super-engaged media relations might useful in small doses but impractical as a guiding philosophy. And she wasn’t alone in that critique.
In some ways, I couldn’t blame her. Public relations has been able to “scale” in a myriad of other ways over the past three decades. Press release distribution, which used to be centered on the time-consuming labor of copying items and stuffing envelopes (and, later, fax machines), is now a push-button industry. The intensive task of sifting through dozens of newspapers and magazines each day to create a pile of “clips” is now, in this era of Google News, Radian6 and automated listening solutions, almost comicaly quaint. Much of our business has scaled up, and we — and an industry — are providing better, more extensive service with fewer human resources.
But media relations remains stubbornly resistant to revolutionary change. If anything, the rise of technology has made our jobs more difficult. There are more media out there, and those individuals are being hit with more information than they can possibly handle (I’ve written about clinical study information overload before). The side effect of scaling up public relations means that the signal-to-noise ratio for journalists and online influencers is getting ever smaller.
The solution is not to try to scream louder or to pitch more (or even more creatively) in an effort to stand out.
Rather, the goal is prove to journalists, day in and day out, that public relations isn’t about constant pitching (no matter how well-crafted or well-targeted those pitches might be). We need to consider ourselves in a high-touch, high-value relationship, where we’re anticipating needs and filling them. We’ll need to to be well-read and able to make meaningful connections, regardless of whether those connections have any benefit to us. (For an excellent overview of how to think about this, you really, really must read Denise Graveline’s Tip More, Pitch Less post.)
That kind of relationship-building and information-sharing is not an easy task, and it certainly doesn’t “scale.” But the more you scale, the more you lose the personal touch. And — in this era of spam and near-spam — that’s a tradeoff that media relations pros can’t afford to make.